Mastermind: The Evil Genius Behind The Migrant Crisis
Posted by addisethiopia on June 14, 2015
‘A business based on human goods’
Ferrara began investigating people-smugglers the morning of the Lampedusa sinking in October 2013. He directed his officers to ask the survivors for the phone numbers of the men who sent them. By tapping those lines and tracing calls to other numbers, he built a phone tree of thousands of numbers whose branches stretch from Africa to Europe, the Middle East, Asia and into the US.In 18 months, he and his team recorded more than 30,000 calls. Those transcripts, some of which Ferrara made available to Newsweek, reveal the existence of several wholly new, multinational organised crime syndicates, together worth around $7bn (€6bn) a year. They also identify the Ethiopian man who is among the busiest and most sophisticated of the new people traffickers. “He is a merciless criminal that, for money, has created a business based on ‘human goods’,” says Ferrara. The Ethiopian’s network offers “a complete service to migrants, running from the centre of Africa to Libya to Italy to another country from there. It includes all accommodation, transport and food”. It is, says Ferrara, a criminal operation like no other. No name, no fixed base, a fluid membership and, most remarkably, “totally without risk”. “With drugs, if you lose the drugs, you lose your money,” says Ferrara. “But in this case, you pay in advance. Even if the migrants drown, Ermias has already been paid.”
Ermias Ghermay’s clients describe him as about 40, short and stocky. In conversation, he seems uneducated but street-smart: dynamic, plausible and fluent in several languages, including Arabic and Tigrinya, the ancient tongue of northern Ethiopia and Eritrea. “Really smart,” says one Palermo police officer. “He has the capacity to organise an international criminal enterprise that is very complicated – lots of people, lots of contacts, spread everywhere, and moving money and people between them. He’s a professional.”
Over the months Ferrara has been tapping Ghermay’s calls, the Ethiopian has given glimpses of his operation in asides and casual boasts. Ghermay, it transpires, has been working as a people smuggler for about a decade. Like many others, he bases himself on the Libyan coast, mostly in the capital, Tripoli or, in the port of Zuwarah to the west.
Importantly for EU officials thinking of targeting traffickers’ ships, Ghermay regards the wooden fishing boats or inflatable rafts he buys as disposable; they generally either sink or are confiscated on landing in Sicily. That has encouraged him to seek out the cheapest seaworthy vessels he can – inevitably, they barely float at all. To combat the chances of his clients losing their nerve or finding another boat, Ghermay came up with the idea of renting warehouses in Zuwarah in which he locks thousands for months after first removing their mobile phones.
Most people smugglers seem content to be links in a chain. But Ghermay’s phone calls reveal bigger ambitions, and a sprawling network of such sophistication and flexibility as to dampen any expectations of a quick fix. To ensure a steady supply of migrants, he works with those in Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria or Eritrea who run trucks across the Sahara. Simultaneously, he continually establishes fresh relationships with people traffickers further down the line: those in Sicily, operating in migrant centres, or in Rome, Milan or even further afield in Berlin, Paris, Stockholm or London.
These contacts – whom Ghermay flatteringly addresses as his “colonels” – perform two main tasks: they send and receive both people and money. The latter Ghermay mostly funnels through international cash transfer agents in Ethiopia, Israel, Switzerland and the US.
As part of their service, the colonels also give the migrants a number for the colonel at the next stage of their journey. Communicating mainly by text, the migrants then call the next colonel for more help. The colonels give their clients the latest information on migration routes: refuse to stay in this migration centre because it’s filthy and asylum takes for ever; don’t take the train from Milan – it’s routinely raided by police; don’t try to cross from France to the UK at Calais right now as the border guards are cracking down. Some of Ghermay’s colonels exhibit an entrepreneurial spirit themselves, advertising their services on Facebook and other social media.
Lately Ghermay has diversified, too. For those who can pay, he has built relationships with other contacts who can supply fake passports, fake marriage documents and even – using at least one corrupt European official in Addis Ababa, whom the people smugglers refer to as “the ambassador” – real passports and real visas. For such a premium service, Ghermay will arrange for his clients to travel by plane.
In this way, the Ethiopian has built a global people-smuggling network that is a seamless one-stop shop. His representatives around the world offer transfers from anywhere to anywhere, anyhow, for a single, all-inclusive price. This is an empire, based nowhere, run by a constantly changing personnel, tuned to adjust to new opportunity and overcome new adversities. Licata, the judge, calls it “an octopus”.
–- Anti-Mafia prosecutor Calogero Ferrara hands over a 526-page indictment against 24 African human traffickers. It is a day after the 800 migrants drowned in waters 500km to the south and a day, too, since an Isis video surfaced showing what many, presumably, were fleeing: the execution of 30 Christian Ethiopians in Libya.
–- Multinational organized crime syndicates, together worth around $7bn (€6bn) a year
–- Once they get to the coast, there’s massive racism among the people smugglers, Syrians pay more and ride on the upper deck. Africans, who typically have less money, are locked down below without food or water. Those who cannot pay are kept under armed guard in camps on the Libyan coast until they can.
–- Since the year 2000 around 22,000 Middle Easterners, Asians and Africans have drowned in the Mediterranean